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Quartz Daily Brief—Algerian hostages, US housing, Albanese exits, gold nuggets

By Zach Coleman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What to watch for today

Face off in Algeria. Government troops have surrounded a gas facility where some 20 foreign workers were taken hostage by Islamist fighters in connection with France’s military intervention against Islamist rebels in nearby Mali. Officials sought mediation by Tuareg tribal elders to free the hostages who include French, British, Japanese, Norwegian and American citizens. One hostage said the militants had forced some of the group to wear belts with explosives.

… meanwhile Nigerian troops due in Mali. The first 200 of up to 3,300 troops from west African countries are to join France’s operation against Islamist militants. Troops from Niger are to be deployed along that country’s border with Mali today as well.

Eyes on US home construction. After a closely-watched indicator of housing activity remained steady yesterday, data on housing starts and building permits issued in December will be on today’s radar. It’s a key sign of US economic fortunes, as a rebound in home construction has been the foundation of recovery from the financial crisis. Some even see a new bubble forming.

Earnings season continues, with announcements from Bank of America, Citigroup and American Express, among others.

While you were sleeping

Rio Tinto chief replaced. The world’s second biggest mining company will take $14 billion in writedowns for failed aluminum and coal mining company acquisitions led by Tom Albanese, who is to step down as chief executive along with a top lieutenant. Sam Walsh, head of the company’s iron ore business, was named chief executive following the accounting charges for the purchases of Alcan and Riversdale Mining.

Barclays linked bonuses to “values”. Anthony Jenkins, the British bank’s chief executive, said bonuses and performance for Barclays’ 140,000 staff would be tied to the upholding of company values.

Dreamliner party canceledRegulators in India, Europe and Japan followed the US Federal Aviation Administration in ordering the grounding of Boeing 787 jets amid concerns with the safety of the jets’ lithium ion batteries. The FAA issued its order to US carriers just before Lot Polish Airlines’ inaugural 787 flight from Warsaw landed in Chicago, home to Boeing; Lot canceled its launch celebrations and its jet’s return flight. Chile’s Lan Airlines also parked its Dreamliners, leaving Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines as the model’s remaining operators.

New protections for US mortgage holders. The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued new rules that will force mortgage servicers to give homeowners more chances to avoid foreclosure. The rules require servicers to wait until a loan is at least 120 days delinquent and alert borrowers who miss two consecutive payments of options to avoid foreclosure.

Profit jumped at chipmaker. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest contract chip manufacturer, recorded a 32% rise in quarterly earnings on strong demand by smartphone and tablet makers. Intel is to report results later today.

Iraq weighing BP deal. The government is considering a multibillion-dollar deal for BP to redevelop the Kirkuk oil field, though control over it is disputed by the national government and the Kurdish regional government.

Nokia cut 1,100 jobs. The phone maker will eliminate the jobs of 300 employees in Finland and transfer another 820 to Indian outsourcing companies HCL Technologies and Tata Consultancy Services.

Surprise rise in Australian joblessness. Employers down under had been expected to add 4,000 jobs but instead cut payrolls by 5,500 staff in December, pushing up the jobless rate by 0.1 percentage points to 5.4%. Weaker commodity prices and the high Australian dollar have taken a toll on the previously buoyant economy.

Quartz obsession interlude

Zach Seward on the legal problems with Facebook’s new “Graph Search” tool. “The issue is hardly academic. Just last summer, the company settled with the US Federal Trade Commission for making changes to its privacy policy that the FTC deemed ‘deceptive’. The issue then was that information users had posted to Facebook was viewable to a growing array of people who weren’t originally supposed to see it. Privacy advocates argued in December that removing the ability to opt out of search amounted to the same thing and violated Facebook’s settlement with the FTC.” Read more here.

Matters of debate

Has the US government become the world’s largest insurance broker? If you judge it by its spending habits.

The cost of banks using more equity capital have been exaggerated. Banks appear to want to play by different rules than other private enterprises.

The potential of online education to reduce US inequality is overrated. The availability of such courses worldwide will make it more difficult for US workers to gain an advantage.

India will need more than good advice to fix its infrastructure deficit. It will also need lots of cash, for starters.

A China slow-down is far more dangerous than fast expansion. While other countries worry about the political power that comes with China’s economic clout, they’ll have a far harder time adapting to a world where China doesn’t grow.

On that note: The People’s Republic is not the world’s factory anymore. Competitors in Southeast Asia are attracting multi-national companies on the hunt for cheap labor.

Mexico hasn’t turned a corner. Murders are down and growth is up, but reforms to loosen the grip of monopolistic elites are still key to progress.

The solution to a lack of economic productivity: sleep less. There are pills for that, and they could increase labor productivity by a third—but at what cost?

Next year is ALWAYS better. The Economist hosts a forum on whether or not 2013 will be better than 2012.

Surprising discoveries

Amateur gold prospector struck it rich. The unidentified man found a 5.5 kilogram nugget, with an estimated value of $315,000, using a handheld metal detector near the town of Ballarat, Australia.

Fecal transplants better than antibiotics. A series of medical trials has given scientific backing to the ancient cure for gastrointestinal infections of injecting feces from a donor to restore a normal balance of beneficial bacteria in the intestines.

Meet one of the few entrepreneurs in North Korea. Felix Abt, a Swiss national who worked in Pyongyang for seven years, talks about doing business in the insular nation and teaching socialists about marketing.

American media gadfly to build libertarian utopia. Glenn Beck, the erratic conservative commentator, will attempt to build an Ayn Rand-inspired city.

Speaking of utopian city states, whatever happened to all those arcologies? The Awl chronicles the weird, wacky world of arcologies (self-sustaining communities), from Abu Dhabi to Moscow.

American cash is still king, especially $100 bills. “Greenbacks with Ben Franklin’s face remain the currency of choice for Argentinians, Azeris, and anyone else outside the US looking to squirrel away a bankroll.”

Our best wishes for a productive day. Please send any news, comments, buried gold nuggets and North Korean business plans to You can follow us on Twitter here for updates during the day.

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